Educational selection in an age of meritocracy

Nick Cohen has another piece championing the cause of grammar schools. The argument is cogent enough. Presently our ‘comprehensive’ education practices selection on the basis of wealth, either through fees or house-prices. A return to the grammar school system would allow those from poorer backgrounds who are presently excluded under this present arrangement to gain access to the best education available rather than being confined to the ‘bog-standard’ comprehensive.

I think I’m at least as familiar with the shortcomings of the bog-standard school as Nick Cohen, which is why I try to keep a reasonably open-mind on this issue – but I have a couple of problems with this fashionable iconoclasm towards the comprehensive system.

For one, while it is certainly true that social mobility has declined since the 1950s and that this has coincided with the dismantling of the grammar school system, I can’t recall any of the advocates of grammar schools producing evidence that the former is caused by the latter. Harry, who links the piece approvingly, points out that Hattersely and Kinnock, fierce opponents of selection, both went to grammar schools, as did “huge chunks of the educational establishment.” I’m not sure what to make of this argument. If these are being held up as an example of the meritocratic credentials of the grammar school system, my scepticism remains pretty much intact.

And even more so if you apply the theory to Scotland. Here John Reid and Jack McConnell, along with “huge chunks of the educational establishment” were educated in Catholic schools in Lanarkshire. Anyone who believes this reflects the merits of denominational education in this part of the world is capable of believing anything.

The other problem I have is with the tone of these arguments. They’re all about providing escape hatches from the hell of the “bog-standard comprehensive”, without any apparent interest in why they’re hellish in the first place. Nick Cohen is right to point out that the parents of the “thick rich kids” unable to pass private entrance exams buy better education for them through house-purchase. But since these schools don’t practice selection, isn’t it worth asking why they are better?

This question, I suspect, would at least raise the possibility that the structure of the education system doesn’t have anything like the effect on social mobility as people assume. Moreover, even if it did – what of those left behind, for whatever reason, in the bog-standard/neo-secondary moderns? Could someone spare a thought for these, along with all those in institutions that fall well below the ‘bog-standard’? And is it only me who thinks one of the reasons behind declining social mobility is the simple fact that in order to make the journey from pauperism to prosperity, you have to travel so much further than you used to?

  1. Phil E said:

    I particularly like that last sentence. I think the effective replacement of equality of outcome by meritocracy is one of New Labour’s single worst achievements (thread tie-in…) Meritocracy only says that those who fail will (be seen to) deserve it; it doesn’t say anything about which groups (or how many people) will fail, how far they’ll fall when they do or how easy it will be for them to get back up. (And yes, the idea that grammar schools would be preferable because they’d save a few more able working-class kids from the horrors of the local comp is really extraordinary – at least, hearing the argument advanced from the left is extraordinary.)

  2. MatGB said:

    Well said sir! I went to a grammar school (Torbay still has them), mys siter went to the local Secondary Modern. She got better exam results than me, but was encouraged to go be a secretary, I was pushed off to University.

    Grammar schools are not necessarily good (mine, at the time, was pretty poor, especially in science teaching). Comprehensives, if done correctly, can be excellent.

    Hattersley, for example, has always been very clear that Comps need to stream based on ability per subject, and mobility within the streams would be essential. Yet when people criticise Comps, they assume the worst, and that the lessons are completely “all-in” as some are prone to be if the misguided utopians get hold of the planning.

    I’d have no problem with a system similar to the Dutch or German methods of streaming, but not grammar schools, they were never badly done, and the overt emphasis on academic over other abilities continues to do long-term damage to the system overall, and the economy and general societal values.

    Anyway, enough rambling, I may be more coherent if people pick me up on some of the above.

  3. dearieme said:

    I knows my duty. As I repeat regularly – my cousin who went to a Secondary Modern swears by it. As did the cousins who went to Grammar Schools or the Scottish equivalents.

    I went to a Comprehensive (late 50s, early 60s) that retained, through the attitude of the rector and the teachers, an attachment to the high standards of the Scottish rural tradition. Some of the teaching was quite excellent. It met Hattersbum’s requirement of “stream[s] based on ability per subject, and mobility within [he means ‘between’] the streams”. There was little social mixing between those in the academic streams and the others: “we” academic kids dominated everything. We gave not a thought to issues of social class. I never had much idea what the parents of most of my friends did for a living, and didn’t give a hoot if they lived in a Council House – what mattered was that we shared common interests (up to a point: they were all bloody peasants when it came to Jazz), had comparable vocabularies and thought at roughly the same speed. The only argument against sending us to a school of our own was that the town was too small to support two secondary schools: in a bigger town, with several secondaries, we might have had, for instance, the advantage of being taught physics by a physicist, instead of by a poor bloody chemist whose grasp of the subject was inferior to ours. Eventually, the rector retired and was replaced by a proponent of “progress”, the best teachers moved away, standards slipped and it became a “bog standard” comp”. All very sad. To get her anywhere near the standard of schooling that I enjoyed, I removed my daughter from the (English) state system and sent her private. So did our friends up the road – also rural Scots who had had a state education – in spite of their socialist politics.
    Really, the advocates of “Comprehensives” have a near-impossible task – they have to explain why schooling is about the only activity known to man where there is no advantage in specialisation. Anyway, this is probably all about a second order effect – what really matters is to stop the state providing schooling. Funding, yes; providing, no.

  4. luis enrique said:

    You’re right about those articles reducing the problem to one of finding escape hatches from hell. No help for those left behind.

    I can’t figure out where your main point about social mobility not really stemming from the education system leads, though. If you start from that premise, don’t you end up wanting an education system that helps correct that?

    It’s not a very illuminating answer to your question about why certain schools are good and others bad, but maybe the main reason (much simplified) is just an analogue of the bigger problem you hint at: wealth begets wealth and advantage accrues down the generations. Good school are good because they’re full of the advantaged offspring rich, while the bad school are bad because they’re full of the disadvantaged offspring of the poor. (I don’t imagine this idea is new to you, I’m just trying to see where it leads).

    This answer is circular, because it doesn’t answer the question of what makes some schools good in the first place, but the wealth begets wealth model of society is circular too. It’s also open to the same counter examples – there are some good schools in bad neighbourhoods and vice versa, just as some rich people came from poor backgrounds. But if this (background inequality in society) is the main reason why some schools are good and others bad, rather than funding, the endless targets, and all the other things commonly said to be wrong with the system, then don’t you need structural change?

    If the education system in its current form does nothing to help break the cycle, or even reinforces it, then don’t the Grammar system fans have a point wanting reform the system so that it’s better at taking kids out of one background and setting them off on a different path? Then again, re-reading your post, you’re not really arguing against the idea of changing the education system, you’re just suggesting we look for answers elsewhere too. I think. Damn, I thought there was a point in here somewhere, when I started.

  5. Simstim said:

    MatGB: I’d guess that the career advice your sister received was as much influenced by her gender as by her education.

  6. Jamie K said:

    Re Catholic schools:

    “Anyone who believes this reflects the merits of denominational education in this part of the world is capable of believing anything.”

    True enough. Both me and the partner went to catholic schools. The experience wasn’t entirely unrewarding, but it was gothic enough to make the description “bog standard” seem like an unambiguous compliment.

  7. Shuggy said:

    I can’t figure out where your main point about social mobility not really stemming from the education system leads, though.

    Luis – I was thinking that Nick Cohen has conflated two concepts of equality – one has to do with ‘equality of opportunity’ and the other to do with ‘inequality of outcome’. Britain fails on both counts. More of the former would be desirable in the sense that it is obviously bad that the child from the poor background should be denied the best education simply on account of his or her postcode. Whether grammar schools facilitated such mobility is entirely possible but its advocates have yet, as far as I’m concerned, failed to produce any persuasive evidence that this is so – still less that it could do so in the future in a world of private tution and coaching. They seldom if ever make any international comparisons, only doing so when the evidence supports their preconceptions. Sweden is used because they have a voucher system. Finland, which has the best educated 15 year-olds in the OECD is barely mentioned – yet it has a fully comprehensive system.

    Grammar schools may or may not facilitate greater ‘equality of opportunity’ but I doubt whether it’s as important as some people seem to suppose. After all, American society is more mobile than Britain, yet they have nothing resembling the grammar school system.

    But even if it did, this would do nothing to help those at the bottom of the social ladder. The most exceptional might escape but no one should believe that an above average working class kid has the same chance today of grammar school entry as a mediocre rich kid whose parents can afford tution to pass the 11+.

    Forgive me – maybe this counts as self-interest on my part: those of us that lack merit see a ‘meritocracy’ as being a hard-hearted world in which to live.

    NB: This site has obviously gained a certain notoriety – I discovered today that I can’t post comments during the day because Glasgow City Council’s firewall deems this ‘political organizations’ of an unprofessional nature ;-)

  8. Shuggy said:

    inequality of outcome’.

    I meant…ach you know what I meant…

  9. Terri said:

    Reinstating grammar schools is just plain lazy – or cowardly. The school system (and availability of education) has evolved over a long period, and simply to return to something that worked for some people once upon a time is either a refusal to think or a failure of nerve.

    In just over 60 years we’ve gone from a situation where a tiny handful of children from working-class backgrounds could get a scholarship to (fee-paying) grammar schools in order to ‘better themselves’, through the ’44 Education Act (free grammar schools for anyone who could pass the 11+) and on to the idea that education should be available for everyone, and not dependent on passing a single exam at a tender age.

    Just as the ’44 education act recognised the need for drastic change, grammar schools were replaced by comprehensives because it was recognised that the system damaged and limited an awful lot of people.

    There are undoubtedly problems, but they’re not going to be solved by retreat to the fantasy of the golden age. If anything, the persistence of that fantasy contributes to the problems. This is 2006 – why on earth do we want to turn the clock back?

    If anything, the education system hasn’t gone forward fast enough to keep pace with the extraordinary amount of social and technological change in the last few decades. Hell, we couldn’t even manage the relatively modest reforms suggested in the Tomlinson report. Instead, we just keep doing roughly the same things with a few innovations – a bit like souping up a horse and cart and expecting to enter the Grand Prix.

    When people hanker after the good old days, they also forget that the system depended on compulsion, fear, physical violence and subservience. Those who say we should ‘bring back corporal punishment’ are probably right, in that it was an important ingredient.That’s not (thank God) the way we treat children any more – but in that case we need to find something that goes out to children as they are now, rather than trying to make children fit a system that we’re too scared to change and writing off those who won’t or can’t conform.

    Maybe we should be asking children themselves? That’s probably a bit too radical, though.

  10. dearieme said:

    Shuggy, “American society is more mobile than Britain”. Izzatafact?

  11. Shuggy said:

    That’s my understanding, although there isn’t much to choose between them. I think it was an LSE report that put the US and the UK at the bottom of the social mobility ranking, with Finland, Canada, Sweden and Denmark at the top. US social (im)mobility was static, but in Britain it was getting worse. Germany, which has selection (at 10, rather than 11, I believe) was around about the middle. The cases don’t seem to provide evidence that selection for secondary schooling is a decisive variable. Finland and Britain are at oposite extremes of the scale, yet both have comprehensive systems. The report identified the relationship between educational attainment and wealth as a crucial factor that reinforces immobility but it was referring to higher education. Should have mentioned that, really.

  12. I’ve been reading “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris, which suggest that children’s peers are the main factor affecting their life outcome.

    If this is true, it suggests that one factor making bad schools bad is the effect that the kids that go there have on each other. The policy solution for this? I don’t know, but I suspect giving a class or school a meaningful (o the kids) collective result based on the average exam results of the kids might help.

    If I was running UK education I would seriously consider importing the Finnish system lock stock and barrel. Incidently Finnish kids don’t start school until they are 7 which suggests to me that the first two years of schooling in the UK is wasted.

  13. Justsomeguy said:

    All this talk about the grammars is all very well, but it is pointless, they will never come back.

    The Grammar schools were destroyed by an alliance of two very different groups: Middle Class parents who were horrified by the prospect of their not very bright offspring ending up in a Secondary Modern, which was not unlikely; and Working Class Socialists who wanted to ensure that bright working class children were kept in their place (no more escaping via the Grammars).

    So who exactly wants Grammars back? Working Class parents of bright kids would probably be the logical answer to that question, though don’t forget that such parents often did not want to lose their children, which they thought they would be giving them a liberal education unrelated to life in their local community. But anyway, they are such a small group as to make little if any impact.

    “For one, while it is certainly true that social mobility has declined since the 1950s and that this has coincided with the dismantling of the grammar school system, I can’t recall any of the advocates of grammar schools producing evidence that the former is caused by the latter.”

    Well they don’t of course, social mobility happens for a reason. In the first half of the 20th C British society got richer, and as a consequence needed more people to be educated in a certain way, and hence grammar were born to elevate the brightest of the Working Class into the Middle Class. That is why we had social mobility. However, that obviously cannot go on indefinitely, at some point saturation is reached and no more people are required. We have reached that point, indeed I would say the Middle Class is too large and has more people than it needs.

    ”Nick Cohen is right to point out that the parents of the “thick rich kids” unable to pass private entrance exams buy better education for them through house-purchase. But since these schools don’t practice selection, isn’t it worth asking why they are better?”

    Well they are better for the obvious reason that bright parents beget bright children. If you are intelligent enough to be able to afford a house in the best catchment area you are more likely to have an intelligent child, and they will go to school with similar types of people and hence the school will be good. I went to such a school, and I can tell you that the kids there took their education seriously, and indeed mocking people for having few O Grades was quite common (no doubt in prole schools it was the opposite).

    The other thing is schools are about more than getting bits of papers certifying that you have passed Maths or Physics or whatever. I am acquainted with a few ex Public School boys, none of whom did well academically, some quit their courses and some went to 2nd rate Universities. Nevertheless they have a self confidence and self reliance that allows them to prosper and make their way to riches and success in life, and this is as a direct result of their schooling. So you can see why schools are about more than education.

  14. MatGB said:

    Simstim; undoubtedly, but pretty much all of her friends that were likely as smart as me were advised to do a vocational course at the local FE college or go get a job, whereas most of my friends were advised to go to university, regardless of whether it was suitable for them.

    I utterly oppose selection at 11, it was good, and needed, for its time. Now, we need to recognise specialisation of talents, not simply “smart”/”not smart”. Maths, language, whatever. Not by specialist schools either, but by making sure that the talented within each school are pushed to acheive good things at what htye’re good at, but still able to learn a broad enough field as to be able.